My little brother graduates college this week, and it got me thinking about all the things I’ve learned in my seven years as a full-fledged member of the Real World. Things I wish someone had told me. Things I’ve learned the hard way.
Since dropping wisdom bombs is one of the sworn duties of an older sister, I figured a tidy little listicle would make an ideal (cheap) graduation gift. So, little brother, to celebrate this momentous occasion, I offer you these pieces of advice about being an adult and a professional.
1. Politics matter more than you wish they did. Success in the real world is a small part about being competent and an enormous part about being likable. The more people like you, the better you’ll do. Sometimes that means sucking up to people who are less intelligent than you, and sometimes it means being very careful around people with unclear motives. It always means avoiding negative gossip. When you say unkind things about others, people attribute those qualities to you. Same goes for nice things, so say nice things.
2. Opportunities are not limitless, but they are vast and bountiful. You don’t have to live the life that seems to be unfolding before you. You can choose any number of lives and paths, and it’s entirely up to you to decide. This can be a terrifying prospect at times, but it’s important to remember when you feel stuck. I promise, you’re never stuck.
3. What you think is old now is not really old at all. Make friends with people in their 30s and 40s. You’ll quickly understand how young you are and how much time you have to accomplish all the things you want to do. It won’t quash your youthful urgency, but it will take the edge off. And sometimes that edge really needs to be lifted.
4. Money is great and terrible. It’s wonderful to have money, especially when you first start earning a proper income. Enjoy that time! After a while, you’ll become immune to your income, and you’ll risk falling prey to worries that plague many — people who believe that what they have is never enough. You can avoid this by living below your means. Doing that while still enjoying what you have is a great trick and one very few master. Be one of the few.
5. Busy is a lie. People always make time for what’s important to them. Time management is all about prioritization, so anytime someone says they’re “too busy” for anything, what they’re really telling you is, “This is a low priority for me.” This is important to know in business, as well as in your personal relationships. When speaking to bosses, never say you’re busy. Instead, explain what your top priorities are and ask if those are right or if you need to rearrange. In personal relationships, be wary of calling someone out on their “busy.” That may just be a time for silent acceptance of a painful rejection.
6. Choose your battles. Some things are worth fighting for, and others aren’t. It will take time to learn the difference, and it varies for each person. Often something that seems important as it happens — especially if you feel you’ve been wronged — will seem trivial with a little time. Whenever possible, give yourself space to reflect on others’ motives and intentions before deciding whether an issue merits addressing. Which brings me to…
7. Assume confusion, not conspiracy. Usually things that seem off are due to poor communication, false assumptions, or mismatched agendas. This is especially true in the workplace, where others’ actions can seem perplexing or even antagonistic if you don’t understand what’s driving them. Most often, people simply have no idea they’re doing anything wrong or weird, and a simple conversation clears things right up. Approach people with an open mind and give them benefit of the doubt, and you’ll find almost all conflict dissolves before it even begins.
8. Listening is a rare and valuable skill. You know that feeling of being heard, of being really and truly understood? It’s a delectable treat, and there’s not enough of it in the world. You’ll make fast friends by listening without judgment, and you’ll learn heaps about the world by seeking to understand others.
9. Brevity, punctuation, punctuality, and an iron are critical tools for being taken seriously. Be aware that brevity in written communication can make you seem competent and powerful, but it can also make you seem rude and unapproachable. A few lines of pleasantries can help offset this. Executives rarely care about pleasantries.
10. Prioritize your health and wellbeing over all other things. Everything is easier when your body is functioning properly. Eat well, get plenty of exercise, floss, and sleep, and you’ll be much happier than most other people.
11. Advice is free and abundant. Listen to all of it, but be selective whose you choose to follow. Consider whether or not the source is someone you’d like to emulate before you heed their words.